Super Tuesday Results Point to Drawn-Out Primary

(Image Credit: Charles Dharapak/AP Photo)

If the events of Super Tuesday were put to music, the mantra in the Talking Heads' song "Once in a Lifetime" would be a fitting choice.

"Same as it ever was… same as it ever was… same as it ever was…"

After 10 states voted and well over 400 delegates were awarded, the Republican primary today looks no different than it did 24 hours ago. Mitt Romney is still the odds-on favorite to win the nomination. Rick Santorum is still his only real rival. Newt Gingrich is still only relevant in the votes that he siphons from Santorum. And Ron Paul is still winless.

Other than the neck-and-neck battle that Romney and Santorum waged for Ohio, Super Tuesday provided very little drama. Things went as expected. Romney cruised to victories in Vermont, Virginia, Idaho and his home state of Massachusetts. Santorum sailed to wins in Oklahoma, Tennessee, and North Dakota. Towards the end of the night the only result in doubt was the Buckeye State. Ultimately, Romney had scored an apparent triumph by the narrowest of margins: 38 percent to 37 percent. Coupled with his win in Alaska, Romney won the most states and the most delegates. He now leads the primary in both categories and, as his aides have noted, it is all but impossible for Santorum to capture enough delegates to secure the nomination outright.

"I must admit that after last night, I feel pretty darn good," Romney said in an interview today on CNBC. "We had a very strong response across the country."

But that won't be enough to keep Santorum - or Gingrich and Paul, for that matter - from plowing ahead, nor will it be enough to put to rest the lingering doubts about Romney's candidacy.

"It is clear. We have run races all over this country, against the odds. When they thought, 'Okay, he is finally finished,' we keep coming back," Santorum said Tuesday night to supporters in Steubenville, Ohio.

Now Santorum is hoping that Gingrich will abandon the race, despite the former House Speaker's plan to stay in it. Santorum's Super PAC - the Red, White and Blue Fund - said today that "with Gingrich exiting the race it would be a true head-to-head race and conservatives would be able to make a choice between a consistent conservative in Rick Santorum or Mitt Romney. For instance, with Gingrich out of the race Santorum would have won both Ohio and Michigan. Newt has become a hindrance to a conservative alternative."

Unfortunately for Santorum, Gingrich said today he's not going anywhere except on to Alabama and Mississippi, two of the next states to vote.

"If I thought he was a slam dunk to beat Romney and to beat Obama I would really consider getting out," Gingrich said of Santorum on The Bill Bennett Show. "I don't."

Both Gingrich and Santorum will be boosted by the upcoming primary calendar with Alabama, Mississippi, Kansas and Missouri all voting in the next 10 days. Not until Illinois holds its primary on March 20 is there a state where Romney will be favored. While the math may be on Romney's side, the immediate schedule is not.

The problem for the former Massachusetts governor, it seems, is that while he has won the minds of many Republican voters, he has failed to win their hearts. In seven of the 10 Super Tuesday states combined, 61 percent of voters said electability or experience were the top attribute they wanted in a candidate - and 51 percent of those voters backed Romney. However, 36 percent of voters in those seven states said the most important attribute in a candidate was "strong moral character" or the "true conservative" - and 46 percent of those voters supported Santorum, compared to only 17 percent for Romney.

Despite more experience, more money, more organization and more establishment backing, Romney has been unable to put away Santorum, the same man who a little over five years ago suffered the worst loss ever for an incumbent senator in the nation's history. While Romney - with wins in 13 states, Ohio included, compared to six for Santorum - is still the heavy favorite to secure the GOP nomination eventually, the drawn-out primary could take a serious toll in the general election. Rather than directing his attacks on President Obama as he would like to do, Romney is forced to devote time, money, and energy to beating Santorum. Every day - and dollar - that Romney has to spend on defeating Santorum is another day - and dollar - focused on issues - such as contraception, for instance - that won't help his cause in the fall. In the past few months alone, Romney's approval rating among independent voters has plummeted.

Ultimately, the big winner on Super Tuesday may not have been any of the Republican hopefuls, but rather Obama who already boasts a huge war-chest, rising poll numbers, an improving economy, and the support of most independents and a vast majority of Latino voters, the nation's fastest-growing voting bloc.

Romney may not be a fan of Talking Heads or their song "Once in a Lifetime," but if he hears that tune today, one lyric might resonate with him more than any.

"You may ask yourself, 'Well, how did I get here?'"

"Same as it ever was… same as it ever was… same as it ever was… "

Matthew Jaffe is covering the 2012 campaign for ABC News and Univision.